Chapter 27

Sheila McCarthy was enduring the morning's torture on the treadmill when she hit the stop button and gawked at the television in disbelief. The ad ran at 7:29, smack in the middle of the local news. It began with the provocative sight of two well-dressed young men kissing passionately while a minister of some variety smiled behind them.

A husky voice-over announced, "Same-sex marriages are sweeping the country. In places like Massachusetts, New York, and California, laws are being challenged. Advocates of gay and lesbian marriages are pushing hard to force their lifestyles on the rest of our society."

A still photo of a wedding couple- male and female-at the altar was suddenly desecrated with a bold black X. "Liberal judges are sympathetic to the rights of same-sex marriages." The photo was replaced with a video of a group of happy lesbians waiting to tie the knot in a mass ceremony "Our families are under attack from homosexual activists and the liberal judges who support them." Next was a quick video of a mob burning an American flag. The voice said, "Liberal judges have approved the burning of our flag." Then a quick shot of a magazine rack lined with copies of Hustler. "Liberal judges see nothing wrong with pornography." Then a photo of a smiling family, mother and father and four children. "Will liberal judges destroy our families?" the narrator inquired ominously, leaving little doubt that they would if given half a chance. The family photo was ripped apart into two jagged pieces. Suddenly the handsome but serious face of Ron Fisk appeared. He looked sincerely at the camera and said, "Not in Mississippi. One man. One woman. I'm Ron Fisk, candidate for the supreme court. And I approved this ad."

Dripping with sweat, her heart pounding even faster, Sheila sat on the floor and tried to think. The weatherman was prattling on, but she didn't hear him. She lay down on her back, stretched out her arms and legs, and took deep breaths.

Gay marriage was a dead issue in Mississippi and would remain so forever. No one with an audience or a following had dared to suggest that the laws be changed to allow it. Every member of the state legislature could be expected to rail against it. Only one judge in the entire state- Phil Shingleton-had addressed it, and he had dismissed the Meyerchec/ Spano lawsuit in record speed. The supreme court would probably deal with that case in a year or so, but Sheila expected a rather terse review followed by a quick 9-0 vote affirming Judge Shingleton.

How, exactly, had she now been cast as a liberal judge who supported gay marriage?

The room was spinning. At a commercial break, she tensed and waited for another assault, but there was nothing but the squawking of a car dealer and frantic urgings of a discount-furniture retailer.

Fifteen minutes later, though, the ad was back. She lifted her head and watched in disbelief as the same images followed the same voice.

Her phone was ringing. Caller ID told her not to answer. She showered and dressed in a hurry and at 8:30 walked into her headquarters with a wide smile and warm "Good morning." The four volunteers were subdued. Three televisions were running three different programs.

Nat was in his office yelling at someone on the phone. He slammed the phone down, waved her inside, then closed the door behind her.

"You've seen it?" he said.

"Twice," she said softly. On the surface, she seemed unfazed. Everyone else was rattled, and it was important to at least try to appear calm.

"Total saturation," he said. "Jackson, Gulf Coast, Hattiesburg, Laurel, every fifteen minutes on all stations. Plus radio."

"What kind of juice do you have?"

"Carrot," he said and opened his small refrigerator. "They're burning money, which, of course, means they're raking it in by the truckload. Typical ambush. Wait until October 1, then push the button and start printing cash. They did it last year in Illinois and Alabama.

Two years ago in Ohio and Texas." He poured two cups as he spoke.

"Sit down and relax, Nat," she said. He did not.

"Attack ads must be answered in kind," he said. "And quickly."

"I'm not sure this is an attack ad. He never mentions my name."

"He doesn't have to. How many liberal judges are running against Mr. Fisk?"

"None that I know of."

"As of this morning, dear, you are now officially a liberal judge."

"Really? I don't feel any different."

"We have to answer this, Sheila."

"I'm not getting dragged into a mudslinging fight over gay marriage."

Nat finally wiggled himself into his chair and shut up. He drank his juice, stared at the floor, and waited for his breathing to relax.

She took a sip of carrot juice, then said with a smile, "This is deadly, isn't it?"

"The juice?"

"The ad."

"Potentially, yes. But I'm working on something." He reached into a pile of rubble next to his desk and pulled out a thin file. He opened it and lifted three sheets of paper clipped together. "Listen to this. Mr. Meyerchec and Mr. Spano leased an apartment on April 1 of this year. We have a copy of the lease. They waited thirty days, as required by law, then registered to vote. The next day, May 2, they applied for Mississippi driver's licenses, took the exam, and passed. The Department of Public Safety issued licenses on May 4. A couple of months passed, during which there is no record of employment, business licenses, nothing official to indicate they were working here.

Remember, they claim to be self-employed illustrators, whatever the hell that is."

He was riffling through the papers, checking facts here and there. "A survey of the illustrators who advertise various services in the yellow pages revealed that no one knows Meyerchec or Spano. Their apartment is in a big complex, lots of units, lots of neighbors, none of whom can remember seeing them. In gay circles, not a single person who was contacted has ever met them."

"Contacted by whom?"

"Hang on. Then they try to get a marriage license, and the rest of the story has been in the newspapers."

"Contacted by whom?"

Nat arranged the papers in the file and closed it. "This is where it gets interesting.

Last week I received a call from a young man who described himself as a gay law student here in Jackson. He gave me his name and the name of his partner, another law student.

They're not in the closet, but not exactly ready for the Gay Pride Parade. They were intrigued by the Meyerchec/Spano case, and when it exploded into a campaign issue, they, like a few other folks with brains, began to get suspicious. They know a lot of the gays here in town, and they began to ask about Meyerchec and Spano. No one knows them. In fact, the gay community was suspicious from the day the lawsuit was filed. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? The law students decided to find the answers. They've called the Meyerchec/Spano phone number five times a day, at different hours, and never gotten an answer. For thirty-six days now, they've made their calls. No answer. They've talked to the neighbors. Never a sighting. No one saw them move in. They've knocked on the door, peeked in the windows. The apartment is barely furnished, nothing on the walls. To make themselves real citizens, Meyerchec and Spano paid $3,000 for a used Saab, titled in both names like a real married couple, then bought Mississippi car tags. The Saab is parked in front of their apartment and hasn't moved in thirty-six days."

"Where might this be going?" she asked.

"I'm getting there. Now, our two law students have found them, in Chicago, where Meyerchec owns a gay bar and Spano works as an interior designer. The students are willing, for a little cash, to fly to Chicago, spend a few days, hang out in the bar, infiltrate, gather information."

"Information for what?"

"Information that, hopefully, will prove that they are not residents of this state; that their presence here was a sham; that someone is using them to exploit the gay marriage issue; and maybe that they are not even a couple in Chicago. If we can prove that, then I'll go to the Clarion-Ledger, the Biloxi Sun Herald, and every other newspaper in the state and deliver the goods.

We can't win a fight on this issue, dear, but we can damned sure fight back."

She drained her glass and shook her head in disbelief. "Do you think Fisk is this smart?"

"Fisk is a pawn, but, yes, his handlers are this smart. It's a cynical scheme, and it's brilliant. No one thinks about gay marriage here because it will never happen, then, suddenly, everybody's talking about it. Frontpage news. Everybody's scared.

Mothers are hiding their children. Politicians are blathering."

"But why use two gay men from Chicago?"

"I'm not sure you can find two gay men in Mississippi who want this kind of publicity.

Plus, gays here who are committed to tolerance understand the backlash from the straight world. The worst thing they could do is exactly what Meyerchec and Spano have done."

"If Meyerchec and Spano are gay, why would they do something to hurt the cause?"

"Two reasons. First, they don't live here. Second, money. Someone's paying the bills-the apartment lease, the used car, the lawyer, and a few thousand bucks to Meyerchec and Spano for their time and trouble."

Sheila had heard enough. She glanced at her watch and said, "How much do they need?"

"Expense money-airfare, hotel, the basics. Two thousand."

"Do we have it?" she asked with a laugh.

"It's out of my pocket. We'll keep it off the books. I just want you to know what we're doing."

"You have my approval."

"And the Frankie Hightower dissent?"

"I'm hard at work. Should take me another two months."

"Now you're talking like a real supreme court justice."

Denny Ott received a left-handed invitation to the meeting when a fellow preacher mentioned it to him over coffee one morning at Babe's. Not every minister in town was invited. Two from the Methodist churches and the Presbyterian pastor were specifically excluded, but it appeared as if all others were welcome. There was no Episcopal church in Bowmore, and if the town had a single Catholic, he or she had yet to come forward.

It was held on a Thursday afternoon in the fellowship hall of a fundamentalist congregation called Harvest Tabernacle. The moderator was the church's pastor, a fiery young man who was generally known as Brother Ted. After a quick prayer, he welcomed his fellow ministers, sixteen in number, including three black ministers. He cast a wary eye at Denny Ott, but said nothing about his presence.

Brother Ted quickly got down to business. He had joined the Brotherhood Coalition, a newly formed collection of fundamentalist preachers throughout south Mississippi.

It was their purpose to quietly and methodically do everything possible, within the Lord's will, to elect Ron Fisk and thus kill off any chance of same-sex marriages occurring in Mississippi. He ranted on about the evils of homosexuality and its growing acceptability in American society. He quoted the Bible when appropriate, his voice rising with indignation when necessary. He stressed the urgency of electing godly men to all public positions and promised that the Brotherhood would be a force for years to come.

Denny listened with a straight face but growing alarm. He'd had several conversations with the Paytons and knew the real issues behind the race. The manipulation and marketing of Fisk made him sick. He glanced at the other ministers and wondered how many funerals they had held for people killed by Krane Chemical. Cary County should be the last place to embrace the candidacy of someone like Ron Fisk.

Brother Ted grew sufficiently pious when he moved to the subject of Sheila McCarthy.

She was a Catholic from the Coast, which in rural Christian circles meant she was a woman of loose morals. She was divorced. She liked to party, and there were rumors of boyfriends. She was a hopeless liberal, opposed to the death penalty, and could not be trusted when faced with decisions dealing with gay marriage and illegal immigration and the like.

When he finished his sermon, someone suggested that perhaps churches should not become so involved in politics. This was met with general disapproval. Brother Ted jumped in with a brief lecture about the culture wars and the courage they should have to fight for God.

It's time for Christians to get off the sidelines and charge into the arena. This led to a fervent discussion about the erosion of values. Blame was placed on television, Hollywood, the Internet. The list grew long and ugly.

What was their strategy? someone asked.

Organization! Church folk outnumbered the heathen in south Mississippi, and the troops must be mobilized. Campaign workers, door knockers, poll watchers. Spread the message from church to church, house to house. The election was only three weeks away. Their movement was spreading like wildfire.

After an hour, Denny Ott could take no more. He excused himself, drove to his office at the church, and called Mary Grace.

The MTA directors met in an emergency session two days after the Fisk campaign launched its waves of anti-gay-marriage ads. The mood was somber. The question was obvious:

How did such an issue take center stage? And what could the McCarthy campaign do to counter the attack? Nat Lester was present and gave a summary of their plans for the final three weeks. McCarthy had $700,000 to fight with, much less than Fisk.

Half of her budget was already committed to television ads that would begin running in twenty-four hours. The remainder was for direct mail and some last-minute radio and TV spots. After that, they were out of money. Small donations were coming from labor, conservationists, good-government groups, and a few of the more moderate lobbying organizations, but 92 percent of McCarthy's funds were mailed in by trial lawyers.

Nat then summarized the latest poll. The race was a dead heat with the two front-runners at 30 percent, with the same number of voters still undecided. Coley remained around 10 percent. However, the poll was conducted the week before and did not reflect any shift due to the gay marriage ads. Because of those ads, Nat would begin polling over the weekend.

Not surprisingly, the trial lawyers had wild and varied opinions about what to do.

All of their ideas were expensive, Nat continually reminded them. He listened to them argue. Some had sensible ideas, others were radical. Most assumed they knew more about campaigns than the others, and all of them took for granted that whatever course of action they finally agreed on would be immediately embraced by the McCarthy campaign.

Nat did not share with them some depressing gossip. A reporter from the Biloxi newspaper had called that morning with a few questions. He was exploring a story about the raging new issue of same-sex marriages. During the course of a ten-minute interview, he told Nat that the largest television station on the Coast had sold $1 million in prime air-time to the Fisk campaign for the remaining three weeks. It was believed to be the largest sale ever in a political race.

One million dollars on the Coast meant at least that much for the rest of the markets.

The news was so distressing that Nat was debating whether to tell Sheila. At that moment, he was leaning toward keeping it to himself. And he certainly wouldn't share it with the trial lawyers. Such sums were so staggering that it might demoralize Sheila's base.

The MTA president, Bobby Neal, finally hammered out a plan, one that would cost little.

He would send to their eight hundred members an urgent e-mail detailing the dire situation and begging for action. Each trial lawyer would be instructed to (1) make a list of at least ten clients who were willing and able to write a check for $100, and (2) make another list of clients and friends who could be motivated to campaign door-to-door and work the polls on Election Day.

Grassroots support was critical.

As the meeting began to break up, Willy Benton stood at the far end of the table and got everyone's attention. He was holding a sheet of paper with small print front and back. "This is a promissory note on a line of credit at the Gulf Bank in Pascagoula," he announced, and more than one lawyer considered diving under the table. Benton was no small thinker, and he was known for drama. "Half a million dollars," he said slowly, the numbers booming around the room. "In favor of the campaign to reelect Sheila McCarthy. I've already signed it, and I'm going to pass it around this table.

There are twelve of us here. It requires ten signatures to become effective. Each will be liable for fifty thousand."

Dead silence. Eyes were darting from face to face. Some had already contributed more than $50,000, others much less. Some would spend $50,000 on jet fuel next month, others were bickering with their creditors. Regardless of their bank balances at the moment, each and every one wanted to strangle the little bastard.

Benton handed the note to the unlucky stiff to his left, one without a jet. Fortunately, such moments in a career are rare. Sign it and you're a tough guy who can roll the dice. Pass it along unsigned and you might as well quit and go home and do real estate.

All twelve signed.